Walking in the Spirit: Galatians 5:16-24

Oh, how wretched we Christians can often seem!  Through the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit creates spiritual life in us, through which we are born from above (John 3:3-6).  Yet, this spiritual birth is but the beginning of a constant conflict between our sinful nature and the Spirit of God.

The Apostle Paul calls our sinful nature, “the flesh.”  Now, Paul doesn’t mean to say that only our bodies are sinful but that everything else is left untainted.  No, for sin infects and corrupts our entire being–body and soul!

But how does this complete corruption affect our lives?  We sin.  It means that our sinful nature naturally rebels against God.  That’s because our flesh doesn’t want to bother believing in God or His truth for our lives.  We’d rather go our own way, do what we want, and be self-sufficient.  The flesh believes it doesn’t need what God wants to give.  For our sinful flesh fights against the Spirit of God.

And, if that’s true, then how does the Holy Spirit come to strengthen us, so we can fight against our fallen flesh?  For if the Holy Spirit doesn’t do that, then the war is over even before it begins.  This is how the Holy Spirit comes to us–through God’s Word and Sacraments.

The Holy Spirit uses Word and Sacrament to strengthen the new man given to us in our baptisms, so we won’t be so easily led away from the faith.  The Spirit gives us free grace, but the flesh wants to focus on what it wants.  The Spirit forgives sins, but the flesh thinks that it needs no forgiveness.

Today’s reading from Galatians talks about the Spirit, but it’s not referring to our “human spirit.”  It’s referring to the Holy Spirit.  For it’s the Holy Spirit who pierces and penetrates us with God’s Word, enlivening the new man within us.  So, even when we do what is right–that is, walk by the Spirit–we can’t take the credit.  That’s because the new man arising to life is the result of the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word in our lives!

Each Christian is in a lifelong, spiritual, civil war.  That’s why Paul writes that we often do what we don’t want to do.  Sometimes, we wish to follow the whims of our fallen flesh, but the Spirit inspires us to wage war against our own wishes.  Other times, the Spirit enlivens our sense of right and wrong, yet our flesh counterattacks and redirects us to act otherwise.  How frustrating!  We want to do something, but we don’t.  We don’t want to do something, but we do.

That’s why God tells us to gather as His people, so He may come to give us His grace (Hebrews 10:24-25).  This is so the Spirit may fill us with more Jesus to enliven and strengthen us.  In the Divine Service, the Holy Spirit working through the Word strengthens the new man within us.  That’s why, for the Christian, the Divine Service is not optional.  That would be the same as saying that God is optional.

God is not some abstract being who only exists in your mind.  He is real.  And He chooses to come to you every week, in a real way, in His Divine Service.  So how could anyone ever consider God coming to us as something optional?

The Apostle Paul tells us to “walk in the Spirit!”  But how does this “walking in the Spirit” take place?  Can you create or bring about this walking in the Spirit?  No, for if that were true, then you could save yourself.  So then, how can you “walk in the Spirit”?  Perhaps, this might help.  Where does the Holy Spirit come to do His work?  For if you are where the Spirit comes to do His work, then you are walking in Him.  And the Holy Spirit comes to do His work through Word and Sacrament.

The Spirit comes to work wherever the Word is.  So then, “walking in the Spirit” means being where the Spirit comes to you.  “Walking in the Spirit” means growing in faith through God’s grace.  For that’s how God strengthens you to subdue your sinful flesh.  Through Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit brings you into God’s grace.  And if you aren’t walking in the Spirit, receiving the grace of God, then you are, instead, fulfilling the wishes of your flesh.  There is no middle ground.

If you look at the list of works of the flesh, some are extreme to us, like sorcery or murder.  Most of us will never do anything like that.  Other works of the flesh are so common that you and can easily end up doing them.  Who here has never been envious or filled with jealousy?

But today, consider these works of the flesh: dissension and division.  They are joined at the hip.  They are the incorrigible works of the flesh in the Church.  Division in caused by choosing what you want to believe, instead of what God has chosen for you to believe.  That’s what division is–it’s exercising freedom in what you believe!

At first, such freedom of choice sounds fine.  For us Americans, it’s in our bones.  We want freedom of choice in everything.  So, its natural to want freedom of choice in what we believe!  That sounds perfect–until you realize that it’s Christ’s Church, not ours!  In Christ’s Church, we have to dismiss our natural inclinations to choose.

Walking in the Spirit means living by the Spirit and the Word–not your self-chosen truths.  To walk in the Spirit means to bind yourself to the truth of God, not to something that you’ve chosen to believe as truth!  As God’s people, we aren’t free to choose whatever we think is right.  Scripture calls that idolatry!

As Christians, we’re supposed to accept the authority of the Spirit as He speaks.  To do otherwise is to follow your own path, which is the source of division and dissension.  When dealing with the truth of God, if you choose what to accept or reject, then you are being divisive because you are following your voice and not the voice of the God the Holy Spirit.

Division happens when the flesh goes against Church unity as God has made it known to us in His Holy Scriptures.  We cause division when we choose to believe something other than the truth of God.  That’s how the flesh works.  That’s why there are over 20,000 Christian denominations, which even includes the so-called non-denominational churches.

Each church body claims some reason to exist.  Each chooses to interpret Scripture as it sees fit, which, ironically, is contrary to Scripture itself.  For 2 Peter 1:20 tells us that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”

We can easily see what the flesh does.  It leads each of us to interpret God’s Word as we see fit, and each Christian becomes his own pope.  It leads us to think something else is more valuable than the pure truth of the Gospel.  It plants a seed in each of us.  And when that seed germinates, it gets us to think that our wants replace what the Holy Spirit wants to give us in Word and Sacrament.  But the only true unity in Christ is from the Holy Spirit, because only He brings us into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ!

“Catholic” was never meant to be the name of a Christian denomination; it means “having something in all its fullness.”  Being “catholic” then is the opposite of being divisive.  Being catholic means–instead of choosing what you want to believe–you accept and believe the entire truth of God.  In Christ’s Church, there are no “cafeteria Christians.”  We are not free to pick and choose whatever we want to believe.

Before going back to heaven, Jesus told His Apostles to teach all that He has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).  “All” says it all; it leaves nothing out.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “If anyone is preaching to you a Gospel contrary to the one you received [that is, contrary to Apostolic doctrine], let him be under God’s curse” (Galatians 1:9).

So, there is no Gospel but this Gospel: Christ has made us His own, and so we belong to Him.  We belong to Christ because we are baptized into Him.  In Baptism, we are crucified with Christ, buried with Him, and raised with Him.  And since our flesh is crucified with Christ, we no longer belong to ourselves.  We are a new creation, bought with Christ’s holy and precious blood (Romans 6:3-5).

We also belong to Christ because the Holy Spirit brings us into His Body, the Church.  The Holy Spirit calls the Church on earth to gather around Word and Sacrament, to receive forgiveness and life through such channels of grace.  In absolution, we hear the Word of forgiveness (John 20:23).  In the sermon, we hear the preached Word (Luke 24:47).  In the Lord’s Supper, we receive the Word of God, even Jesus’ body and blood, into our mouths (Matthew 26:26-28).

Around these gifts of God, we gather.  For in these, God promises to graft us into the only true Vine, Jesus Christ.  In these, and these alone, do we receive our identity as Christ’s own people.

Since we belong to Christ, that means Christ’s righteousness is our own.  For Jesus took into Himself all the works of our sinful flesh.  On the cross, He took into Himself the scum of our corruption and absorbed the ugliness of our unrighteousness.  And, by His blood, He has forgiven us the filth of our flesh and its fallen works.  Only through Christ in the Holy Spirit do we have the righteousness of God.

Praise God the Holy Spirit brings us Christ’s life-giving gifts!  Let us then ever hasten to receive Christ in Word and Sacrament that we may walk in the Spirit.  Yes, the war we wage against our flesh is fierce, but the victory is ours in Christ Jesus!

And may the Spirit also bring us to overflow in His fruits: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control.  God produces these in us, and even produces them now.  To Him alone be all praise and honor into the ages of ages.  Amen.